11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions and Things to Do in Houston
If you are looking for unique and fun experiences, there is no shortage of things to do in Houston. This is the fourth largest city in the United States and home to the famous Space Center Houston, renowned chefs, inspiring museums, and famous artists that you've probably never heard of before. And although this is a big city, there are all kinds of lush green spaces for outdoor activities and a bayou running through the heart of the city center. Depending on your travel dates, you may even be able to take in a sports game or experience Houston's signature event, the Livestock Show and Rodeo.
See also: Where to Stay in Houston
1 Take a Tour at Space Center Houston
Space Center Houston, the official visitor center of NASA's Johnson Space Center, is a must-see attraction in Houston. This is a huge complex, where you can walk through the space shuttle replica Independence and the enormous shuttle carrier aircraft it's mounted on. In the visitor center, you can wander inside a replica of America's first space station, Skylab, and touch a rock from the moon. This is also the place to learn about NASA's upcoming missions, which is currently focused on travel to Mars. If you are here on a Friday, you can even meet an astronaut when they do presentations at 11:00am and 1:00pm.
From the visitor center, you can take an open-air tram tour to Johnson Space Center, home of mission control, to see where astronauts train for space missions. This tour also takes you to Rocket Park to see actual rockets on display. Tickets are free but limited, and you can get a timed ticket to avoid waiting in lines.
If you want to experience something truly unique, sign up for a Level 9 Tour and enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at Johnson Space Center. You can see the Buoyancy Lab, the ISS Mission Control, and simulation labs, along with other areas off limits on regular tours, and possibly even encounter an astronaut. This is a one-of-a-kind experience, and only 12 tickets are sold per day for this exclusive, four- to five-hour VIP tour. Tours begin at the Space Center Houston, which you are free to explore with the purchase of this ticket.
A convenient way to visit the Houston Space Center during your trip to Houston is on NASA's Space Center Houston and City Sightseeing Tour, which includes free admission to the space center as well as a bonus 1.5-hour open-air bus tour of the city's top sights.
Address: 1601 Nasa Pkwy, Houston, Texas
2 Stroll through the Museum District
The Museum District is one of Houston's greatest cultural attractions, with 19 museums residing in this beautiful area. Eleven of these are free to the public. Some of the highlights include the Museum of Fine Arts, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Children's Museum, the Menil Collection, the Holocaust Museum, and the Contemporary Arts Museum, to name just a few. Also in this area is the lovely Hermann Park, with the Houston Zoo and the Miller Outdoor Theatre.
Most of the museums are within easy walking distance of each other, although the Menil and the Rothko Chapel are a little farther out. Museums that are free of charge include: The Menil Collection, Rothko Chapel, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Lawndale Art Center, Houston Museum of American Culture, Rice Gallery, Houston Center for photography, and the Czech Center Museum Houston.
Address: 1001 Bissonnet Street, Houston
3 Visit the Houston Zoo
Set on 55 acres in Hermann Park, the Houston Zoo is one of the city's star attractions, popular with locals and visitors. The zoo is home to more than 6,000 exotic and indigenous animals and contains an education center and children's zoo. Some of the highlights include feeding the giraffes, seeing marine life up close in the aquarium, and watching sea lions and otters frolicking about. Other attractions in Hermann Park are the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Miller Outdoor Theatre, a Japanese Garden, and the Pioneer Memorial Log House Museum. Also fun is a paddle boat trip on McGovern Lake, or a stroll along the park's walking trails.
Address: 6200 Hermann Park Drive, Houston
4 Experience the Tastes of Houston on a Culinary Tour
Houston's cuisine is one of the city's true highlights, with possibilities that range from traditional southern dishes to Latin American, Asian, Mexican, and countless other cultural specialties. Chefs in Houston have put the city on the culinary map of America, and dining in this city is a treat.
One way to taste some of the best that Houston has to offer is on a culinary tour. Both walking food tours and chef-led culinary tours are available, although they do not run daily, and it's advisable to book in advance. Some of these are for adults only and others are open to kids. Walking tours focus on specific areas of the city, like downtown, Montrose, or The Heights, and last about 3.5 hours. Chef-led tours are hosted by some of the city's most well-known and charismatic chefs and are only available once or twice a month. These are always unique tours, with changing themes, a variety of restaurants, and different chefs leading the tour. In some cases, you may not even know where the tour is taking you before you show up.
If there are no tours running during your visit to Houston, make an effort to try some restaurants on your own. There is no shortage of great places to choose from, and you don't need to visit a high-end, expensive restaurant to find amazing food and great ambience. Underbelly (Chef Chris Shepherd), serving locally sourced foods and offering a changing menu depending on what is on hand in the kitchen, is a unique, casual dining experience with a homey feel. For a bite of South American cuisine try Américas (Chefs Michael and David Cordúa), with awesome Latin American food and an elegant and surreal décor, almost reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting. Looking for some southern cuisine? Southern Goods (Chef Lyle Bento) is one of the favorites. For a white tablecloth experience featuring some unique southern food, Brenner's has been a Houston institution for decades.
For other recommendations, ask the chefs at any of these restaurants, and they will likely direct you to their local favorites. Houston's culinary scene is incredibly amicable, with many chefs more than happy to tell you where they go to find tasty meals, from sandwich shops and hole-in-the-wall diners to fine dining.
5 Walk, Bike, or Paddle through Buffalo Bayou Park
One of Houston's natural gems, Buffalo Bayou Park is a beautiful 160-acre green space running through the city, with the slow moving waters of Buffalo Bayou as its centerpiece. This urban park is home to walking and biking trails, a dog park, sculptures, and plenty of shady areas to relax. If you want to get active and enjoy some of the great outdoors from the water, rent a kayak, canoe, or stand up paddleboard and enjoy a paddle along the bayou. Rentals are available at the park, and various tours are offered, ranging from one to three hours in length.
The park is also home to a huge colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that inhabit the Waugh Drive Bridge. Approximately 250,000 of them fly out from the bridge each evening at sunset.
6 Explore Houston's Street Art
While it is often overlooked by tourists, Houston's street art, or what many people know as graffiti, is outstanding, with installations by some of the top names in street art throughout the US and around the world, including COPE2 and Houston's own Gonzo247. These colorful murals adorn the walls of establishments in various locations throughout the city and are well worth taking the time to drive around and see.
The unofficial curator of Houston's street art is the charismatic artist known as Gonzo247. He is one of the city's most famous street artists and the creator of the giant "Houston is Inspired" mural at the corner of Travis and Preston Streets and the smaller "Houston" mural at Leeland and St. Emanuel Streets. This latter area is also home to a large concentration of impressive installations that grace the walls of numerous one- and two-story buildings off Leeland Street at Chartres Street and St. Emanuel Street. But works can be found scattered all over the city on walls of various sizes. To find a map of mural locations check out the Hue Houston Mural Festival website.
7 Shop the Vintage Stores on 19th Street in The Heights
For vintage clothing, retro décor, and old collectibles, 19th Street in The Heights is the place to go. This funky area has all kinds of quirky shops selling everything from evening gowns to casual clothing, as well as jewelry, footwear, household gadgets, and all kinds of unique items. This is also a good place to shop for gifts. The merchandise is not all vintage; some places sell new pieces or a mix of new and old. Even if you are not looking to buy anything, the whole area is worth seeing and offers a one-of-a-kind shopping experience.
8 Attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
Houston's biggest annual event, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, is a fun-filled, 19-day event that brings the whole city out to celebrate in February or March. If you are going to be here during this time, you are in luck, and if you are wondering when to visit Houston, this might be the time to plan your trip. This is an activity the whole family can enjoy, and it's so much more than just a rodeo and livestock show.
If this is your first time to an event of this kind, you will be pleasantly surprised by the diversity of things to do. On the grounds are carnival rides, games, and food stands, and enough entertainment to keep you busy indefinitely. At the rodeo events, which you will need tickets to attend, see the cowboys showing off their skills in a variety of areas. In the evening, some of the biggest names in music perform on stage. Check out the concert listing in advance and secure tickets. If you only have one day to attend this fantastic show, spend a morning or afternoon wandering the grounds and enjoying the carnival, see some of the finest farm animals on display at the Livestock Show, then take in a rodeo event or two to see the cowboys in action, and spend the evening at a concert. Another not-to-be-missed event is the Downtown Rodeo Parade.
9 See a Sports Game
When it comes to seeing a game in Houston, sports fans have plenty of options, and whether it's football, baseball, or basketball, the city takes its sports seriously. Houston is home to the Houston Texans (NFL), the Houston Astros (MLB), and the Houston Rockets (NBA). The Texans play at the NRG Stadium, formerly Reliant Stadium, which is also the venue for the 2017 Super Bowl. The Toyota Stadium in downtown Houston is home to the Rockets, and the Astros play at Minute Maid Park, also in the city center. Check to see if there is a home game during your stay.
10 Walk through Rice University Campus
The Rice University Campus is an oasis in downtown Houston and a favorite outdoor space for many Houstonians. Walking and running trails, thousands of mature trees, and lovely old buildings are spread over this 300-acre campus. Also on the grounds are a large number of impressive contemporary artworks that lend to the tranquil atmosphere. Many of these installations are equally, or even more, impressive in the evening when they are lit. The Rice Gallery is a must-see sight on campus, with huge temporary art installations that almost engulf visitors as they explore the space. Stop in at the Welcome Center at Lovett Hall for more information on the latest things to see at Rice University.
11 Experience the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park
The Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park showcases an impressive multi-story sculptural fountain that sees sheets of water cascading over large concrete walls and sculptures. The structure's semi-circular shape towers 64 feet above you and is fronted by a large arch and 46,500 square feet of water. It's an attraction that needs to be seen to truly be appreciated. This 2.77-acre park, covered with dozens of live oaks, is located in Uptown Houston.
Where to Stay in Houston for Sightseeing
When visiting Houston, try to book accommodations as close to the downtown core as possible. Thanks to its status as a popular convention city, Houston has plenty of great dining and entertainment options here, as well as sports facilities, museums, and shopping. The following hotels are highly recommended:
- Luxury Hotels: One of Houston's oldest hotels, The Lancaster is perfect for concertgoers given its location opposite the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, home to the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Other great downtown luxury hotels are Hotel ZaZa Houston, popular for its high-end spa and proximity to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and Hilton Americas - Houston, a large, modern hotel close to convention centers and sports stadiums.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Popular for being an easy walk from the city's convention and sports facilities, the renovated Embassy Suites by Hilton Houston Downtown is an excellent choice for those vacationing with families thanks to its large outdoor pool. Also worth considering is the centrally located Doubletree Hotel Houston Downtown, with its fitness center and gardens, and the Best Western Plus Downtown Inn & Suites, popular for its outdoor pool and proximity to attractions, including the Downtown Aquarium.
- Budget Hotels: Just a few kilometers west of the downtown core, the Red Roof PLUS+ Houston - Energy Corridor offers pet-friendly options along with free Wi-Fi and breakfasts, while La Quinta Inn & Suites Houston Galleria Area (named after the adjacent shopping mall) boasts a swimming pool and hot tub and is within an easy bus ride of the downtown core. Although located 30 minutes north of downtown Houston, the renovated Greenpoint Extended Stay Hotel is popular for those traveling with pets and for its proximity to the airport.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Houston
- Save Money: If you're planning a busy schedule of sightseeing, consider purchasing the great-value Houston CityPass, which gives you free admission to five of the city's top attractions, including Space Center Houston, the Downtown Aquarium, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The pass is valid for up to nine days, allowing you maximum flexibility when planning your itinerary.